A New Scale of Activism: Canadian Unions and the North American Free Trade Agreement, 1992-1999

By Hamelin, Spencer | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

A New Scale of Activism: Canadian Unions and the North American Free Trade Agreement, 1992-1999


Hamelin, Spencer, Labour/Le Travail


DESPITE CANADA'S CURRENT ECONOMIC INTEGRATION within the North American market, free trade has long been a contested feature of the development of Canada as a nation-state. Daniel E. Turbeville and Susan L. Bradbury describe free trade as a "scarlet thread" running through the history of both Canada and United States. (1) In Canada, this thread begins with the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854, the first comprehensive move toward trade liberalization in Canada, which eliminated tariffs on nonmanufactured products. (2) The treaty was abrogated in 1866 and Canadian attempts to re-establish a reciprocity treaty throughout the late nineteenth century proved futile. (3) In 1910, this trend seemed likely to be reversed, as Wilfrid Laurier's government was approached by the Taft administration requesting that reciprocity be reestablished on similar terms. (4) However, after reaching an agreement, Laurier's Liberal government was defeated by Robert Borden's Conservatives in 1911 and, as a result, the reciprocity agreement died. (5) The next instance of a successful free trade agreement between Canada and the United States was the Canada-United States Automotive Products Agreement (Auto Pact) signed in January 1965. (6) The Auto Pact was an important move toward bilateral free trade, as duties were eliminated from auto parts. (7)

The most comprehensive bilateral free trade agreement was the 1989 Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement (CUFTA). CUFTA featured prominently in the 1988 federal election, for the first time prompting intense campaigns orchestrated by social movements against the agreement. (8) However, Brian Mulroney's pro-free-trade Progressive Conservatives won the 1988 federal election and CUFTA came into effect on 1 January 1989. (9) The next year, preliminary discussions began on the topic of a continental free trade agreement. (10) These talks led to the Trilateral Ministerial Oversight Meeting on 12 June 1991 in Toronto, officially launching the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations. (11) As had been the case with CUFTA, NAFTA prompted a hostile response from social movements, which orchestrated campaigns in all three NAFTA countries. In campaigns against both CUFTA and NAFTA, Canadian organized labour played a prominent role. Despite efforts to block the deal, NAFTA was signed in 1992 and took effect on 1 January 1994. (12)

The way in which some Canadian unions and labour organizations mobilized to confront the spread of free trade agreements differed dramatically preceding and following the implementation of NAFTA. This article seeks to address the following questions: What were these changes and what forces were driving them? How did unions in Canada react to the advance of neoliberal policies on a continental scale? What kind of alliances and forms of solidarity resulted? Subsequent to the failure of domestic political efforts to prevent the passage of NAFTA, some Canadian unions and labour organizations made use of emerging international political opportunities and strengthened alliances with regional counterparts in countries experiencing trade liberalization. (13)

In this article, I focus on two main time periods in order to address the impact of Canadian organized labour's response to NAFTA. First, I examine the domestic and international context of labour activism during the period between CUFTA and NAFTA. I then turn to the period following the passage of NAFTA to investigate emerging forms of transnational activism that it spurred. (14)

My approach to this topic is largely based on primary source materials located at Library and Archives Canada. Canadian labour organizations and individuals that participated in the labour movement have produced ample archives that include newspaper articles, magazine clippings, union newsletters, bulletins, union reports, personal communications, memos, budget proposals, policy documents, public statements, faxes, New Democratic Party (NDP) federal election campaign and research documents, and conference proceedings. …

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